Steamers mania is nearing an all-time high in the Bay of Plenty. A win over Southland last week, coupled with Hawke's Bay's loss to Tasman, meant the Steamers finish the round robin at the top of the table, securing a home semifinal and, if they make it, a home final. The semifinal will be against Manawatū at Rotorua International Stadium on Friday night and we can now reveal entry to the stadium will be free to all spectators. Sports reporter David Beck looks at why you should make the most of the offer and how the Steamers made it this far.
Steamers head coach Clayton McMillan is calling for Bay of Plenty fans to turn Rotorua International Stadium into a fortress when his side takes on Manawatū on Friday night.
Steamers fans have no excuse not to make their presence felt at the semifinal as the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union has announced, with the support of Rotorua Trust, spectator entry to the game will be free.
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While there has been some debate among fans about whether the semifinal should be held in Rotorua or Tauranga, being a night game rules out Tauranga Domain as it does not have floodlights. If the Steamers make it through to the final, they will again play a night game. The location of the semifinal was only confirmed on Sunday night after all round 10 games had been played.
"We're grateful more than anything, to have the opportunity to contest a semifinal and the boys are looking forward to getting onto the stadium and putting our best foot forward," McMillan said.
"[Home advantage] is pretty significant. There's less disruption in your week, it's a pretty standard training week for us and we enjoy playing in both Rotorua and Tauranga. We've had a good turnaround from the Southland game and all of those things tend to weigh in your favour.
"None of that counts for a hell of a lot though, if you don't turn up and give a performance that enables you to get a positive outcome."
He hoped the exciting brand of rugby the Steamers have played this season would attract a bumper crowd.
"We've tried really hard all year to play an entertaining brand of rugby, we want to put on a show and I feel like we've done a great job of that. I want to challenge our fans to be vocal and get out and support the team no matter where you are in the Bay of Plenty.
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"We want it to be a real fortress and an intimidating environment for Manawatū. We want the fans to be part of what I'm sure will be a special experience."
When asked to pick out the players he thought had really impressed this season, the fact McMillan struggled to choose any individual perhaps shows the strength of the team as a whole in 2019.
"We've got good players who have worked really hard, the coaches have worked really hard. You need an ounce of luck to go your way and you need injuries to be kept to a minimum.
"In all of those regards we've come off pretty well. Obviously, we've had some big injuries to some important players but the last couple of years building some depth and having good pathways from our academy has put us in a better place to be able to deal with those."
Steamers midfielder Matthew Skipwith-Garland plays his club rugby in Rotorua for Whakarewarewa. He said words could not describe how excited he was to be playing a hometown semifinal.
"It will be in front of family and friends, I'm pretty excited at the moment. [Playing at home] makes it a lot easier. I think we would've liked a day game, in Tauranga or Rotorua, but just being at home makes it easier for us and it gets us up."
When the Steamers met Manawatū in round robin, they cruised to a 46-10 victory. However, Skipwith-Garland said that counted for nothing going into Friday's game.
"We're not going to treat them any differently. Last time, we gave them the respect that they deserved so this time around it will just be a little bit more homework on them and go from there.
"We've just trusted our system this year. We haven't really veered away from the game plan we've been focusing on all season so if it's not broken, you don't have to fix it."
Obviously, hosting a game still comes with costs but the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union approached the Rotorua Trust to help meet the costs of providing free entry to the semifinal in Rotorua.
Trust manager Tony Gill said trustees supported the idea and were able to quickly make the decision to help make the initiative a reality. The $7500 came out of the trust's operating budget, so won't take money away from the granting pool.
"The Steamers are playing some outstanding rugby, and the opportunity to attend a semifinal in Rotorua with free entry is something that all locals with an interest in rugby will now have the chance to enjoy," Gill said.
The Bay of Plenty Rugby Union was supported in offering free entry by Rotorua Energy Charitable Trust, Rotorua Lakes Council, WASPS Rugby, Unison, One Foundation and Pukeroa Oruawhata Trust.
Mitre 10 Cup Championship semifinals:
Bay of Plenty vs Manawatū, Friday, October 18, kickoff 7.35pm at Rotorua International Stadium, Rotorua.
Hawke's Bay vs Otago, Saturday, October 19, kickoff 4.35pm at McLean Park, Napier.